Clifford Roberts: The national man of mystery behind Augusta National

January 24, 2012

Augusta National’s image as an exclusive (and exclusionary) institution is a reflection of the club’s co-founders, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts. As the most famous glam-ateur in the game’s history, Jones was the face of the club, the front man who hung out with Hollywood stars and heads of state. Roberts was an enigma — a man with an eye for detail and innovation both as the club and Masters tournament chairman for 45 years, he was also myopic in his world view, once infamously muttering, “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.” In 1977, Roberts, in declining health, wandered out onto the world’s most famous course and took his own life. The legacy he left is one of intrigue, with fact and fiction intertwined like coffee and fresh cream before the spoon gives them a stir. Here’s the truth, half-truths and downright fairy tales about the man behind the curtain for so many years at the Masters.

Fact: Born on a farm in Morning Sun, Iowa, in 1894, Roberts had an itinerant childhood. His father bounced from one financial scheme to the next and moved the family often, from Iowa to Kansas, California (where Roberts was first exposed to golf as a caddie), Oklahoma and Texas.

Fact: His early life was tragic. His mother suffered from back pain, headaches and depression, among other ills, and took her life with a shotgun in 1913, when Clifford was 19. His father had health issues too, and seems to have committed suicide, dying after being hit by a train in 1921. (There was no note, but the odds that he accidentally stepped in front of a train are slim.)

Fiction: He was unable to cope with the tragedies. Roberts, the second of five children, rose above his circumstances, throwing himself into odd jobs to support the family. He was popular with peers and schoolmates, strong and a good athlete. He raised and sold chickens and dogs, worked as a clerk and delivery boy, milked cows, caddied and much more. He was a Sunday school regular and liked to spend his extra money on nice clothes for himself.

Fiction: Roberts was flush with cash that bankrolled the infant Augusta National. According to David Owen’s The Making of the Masters, which the club holds as one of the most accurate histories of Augusta National, Roberts earned $70,000 in 1929 but lost much of it in the stock market crash. He netted a $21,000 loss over two years starting in 1930, the year he and Bob Jones decided to build the club in Augusta, Georgia, the town where Roberts did his WWI training at Camp Hancock (and close enough to Jones’s Atlanta home).

Fact: Roberts and Jones formed Augusta National in 1931, with Jones as the driving force, to little early interest. Although conventional wisdom has it that Jones lent his celebrity and Roberts his New York connections (and financial muscle), Making of asserts that wasn’t the case. Having made $140K in ’31, Jones was far more cashed up, and had more contacts in New York. Still, thanks to the Depression, the duo failed to attract many early takers, and the club teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for years.

Fact: The first Masters was held in March 1934, but it was called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament until 1939, when Jones, who had thought “The Masters” too hoity-toity, gave in to Roberts’s original name for the competition.

Fiction: Roberts had no sense of humor. Robert’s once wrote the following in a letter to President Eisenhower’s Treasury Secretary George Humphrey, who had gifted a cracker barrel to the club: “Over the years Augusta National had declined to accept golf libraries, Halls of Fame and a museum. But a Cracker Barrel is something we can enthusiastically embrace because we understand it and like it and everything it implies. May its sturdy staves and strong bindings long offer the munching material for companionable gatherings and salty observations.”

Fact: Roberts and Jones drifted apart in old age. The rift was over Jones’s image, about which Roberts fretted far more than his own. Lou Gehrig’s disease enfeebled Jones before his death in 1971, and Roberts discouraged him from attending the Masters. “Cliff took the view that it was for Bob’s well being,” said longtime Atlanta Constitution sportswriter Furman Bisher. “He didn’t want the public to see Bob in such a bad state. Bob resented it, and his family resented it. They thought Cliff was trying to steal the show.” Roberts was not invited to Jones’s funeral.

Fact and Fiction: Roberts lacked ‘the sensitivity chip’ in his personal relationships. He ejected Frank Stranahan for hitting on-course practice balls before the 1948 Masters. He was married three times. Arnold Palmer wrote in A Golfer’s Life of being “almost instantly scared to death of him.” But Roberts had a soft side. Though he was twice divorced, the third wife, Betty Lister, stuck. In Making of, Roberts referred to her as the love of his life. He signed off letters to Jones, “Much love, yours faithfully.” And after he visited Jack Nicklaus’s new Muirfield Village club in Dublin, Ohio, in 1974, Roberts wrote to Nicklaus, “You have a chance to do there in five years what it took us forty years to accomplish at Augusta.” Roberts repeated the comment at the Memorial tournament’s 1976 honoring of Jones, and Nicklaus wrote in My Story, “It was a personal highlight of an altogether happy week.” Palmer, too, considered Roberts a friend.

Fact: Roberts shot himself on the banks of the par-3 course, at age 83, in 1977. Like his mother’s death, his suicide was a result of poor health, and he left instructions for an unmarked grave.

Roberts By the Numbers

80 Acres of fairway area that Alister MacKenzie, Jones and Roberts gave to their prize creation, “which compared to thirty or thirty-five acres on the average course,” Roberts wrote in The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club.

36-28 Ages of Roberts and Jones, respectively, when they set out to recruit Augusta National’s members.

36 Holes originally conceived by Roberts, who at first thought Augusta ought to build a ladies’ course and sell extra-large lots for grand houses around the entire property. Both ideas were abandoned.

1948 The year Roberts invites General Dwight D. Eisenhower to visit his club. Eisenhower joins, and Roberts went on to become Ike’s close friend and financial and political advisor.

-1, 0, +1 Roberts was the first to use the red (under par) and green (even or over par) numbers to show the cumulative score of each player, and also was first to build spectator viewing mounds and place leaderboards throughout the course.

1964 Year Roberts began to print a code of conduct on the back of Masters pairings sheets, most likely in response to the fervor created by Arnold Palmer.

109 Members who attended Roberts’s 80th birthday party at the club in 1974, which he wrote, in a rare show of pride, was “the largest gathering of Augusta National members ever assembled at one time.”

In memoriam

Jack Nicklaus on Roberts

“I considered Clifford Roberts a great friend and a great person… You might be able to say he wanted to be feared to be heard, but underneath, he was an old softie. From the time I met Clifford Roberts until his death, I never knew him to do anything that was not in the best interest of Augusta National. As a youngster and during my very first years at Augusta, Clifford Roberts would ask me what I thought of something, and I would try to give him an answer. He would then research it, come back to me and say, ‘Jack, we agree and we are going to fix that on the golf course.’ Or, he would tell me why they didn’t agree with me. Every year after that, I wrote to him my feelings on what should be done on the golf course — maybe it was a tee that was not level, or a tree growing out over a fairway, or bunker sand not playing like they wanted. No matter what I wrote, I never failed to get a letter, a detailed explanation, and him saying what they would or would not do, and why. I thought that was very fair. I thought he was a great man, who not only made significant contributions to Augusta National, but to the game of golf. He was one of the original members of the Captains Club at Muirfield Village and the Memorial Tournament. He made everything at Augusta National available to me in an effort to help make the Memorial Tournament a better tournament. He participated in a lot of what we did. He once said to me, ‘Jack, you have chance at the Memorial Tournament to do in 10 years what it took us 30 years to do at Augusta National.’ The Memorial Tournament is better off because of Clifford Roberts’ gestures and his efforts than the tournament would have been without it. I love the story about the spoof he put on at one of the jamborees. They always said he could walk on water, and he rigged it so he could walk across the water at No. 16. And there was the story about him in a gorilla suit. He was just a fun-loving guy; a good guy. There was obviously a significant difference in ages between Clifford Roberts and me, but I would still say we were good friends.”